Wayback Wednesday

Wayback Wednesday is a weekly series featuring historical figures with a record of military service and a connection to the arts.

This week features Chicagoan and member of the WWII Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, Richard Barancik.

An army is a complicated thing, with many different roles to play and not all impacts on civilian life easily foreseen. In 1943, with WWII in full swing, a group of men and women with unique training were given a special task. Their unique skills were in the arts and preservation, and their task was to safeguard (and sometimes find, if they had been relocated during the German occupation) cultural monuments across Europe.

War in the 20th century was, to put it mildly, hugely messy. And Europe, particularly without its current modern infrastructure, was a fairly big place with lots of art and monuments for the 400 individuals of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (also known as the ‘Monuments Men’) program to track down and protect. It was not perhaps the most heroic posting in the army, but the members of the MFAA were dedicated to what they did. They provided intelligence to army and air force officers that allowed them to, as possible, minimize damage to museums, monuments, and structures of historic significance. Far from using the their posting to hang back, MFAA personnel often arrived in liberated communities just after the Germans had left and before allied troops entered. Captain Walter J. Huchthausen, who was killed by gunfire while trying to salvage an altarpiece, and Major Ronald Balfour, killed by a shellburst while scouting for hidden artworks beyond allied lines, are symbolic of their dedication.

At the age of 18, Chicagoan Richard Barancik joined the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps in December of 1942. In 1943 he attended the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and attended basic engineering courses at the University of Nebraska. In 1944, he was sent to Europe with the 66th Army Division. Originally headed for the Battle of the Bulge, the 66th was instead sent to besiege the German fortifications at St. Nazaire after 700 soldiers were lost when their transport ship, the SS. Leopoldville, was torpedoed. Barancik then headed to Southern France before being reassigned to Austria, where he came across the MFAA cataloging, archiving, and repairing caches of art hidden by the Nazi leadership. He immediately volunteered for service with the MFAA and was accepted. Barancik recalled later that, “When I arrived in Salzburg, I was not only overwhelmed by the beauty of the town but the quality of the men in the Fine Arts Section. They were typically older and very well educated in the Fine Arts.” Following the war, Barancik would manage to pile up achievements worthy of the company he had been keeping. Barancik studied architecture at the University of Cambridge in 1946 and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at Fontainebleau, France in 1947. He received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture and Bachelor of Science in General Studies at the University of Illinois in 1948. From 1950 to 1993, he enjoyed a long and prosperous career as a prominent Chicago architect.

Other, similarly motivated and talented members of the MFAA went on to help found the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York Ballet along with a slew of smaller museums and institutions across Europe and the United States. An outcome from the chaos of WWII no less welcome for being so unexpected. War is, after all, as much (if not more) what is protected as who you fight. And Barancik and the other members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program exemplify this in their unusual service during WWII. They probably deserved a better movie than the 2014 Monuments Men. I recommend the book Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel, which is much better, if you would like to learn more.